By Virginia Bennis, SHRM-SCP, Director of HR at Out & Equal

The recently released results of the 2021 UK census offers a snapshot of what a state-run, intentionally inclusive census can look like. For the first time, the census, which is administered by the Office of National Statistics every 10 years, offers a voluntary question on gender identity for those aged 16 and over. Previously, the 2011 census offered questions related to same sex civil partnerships, but did little in the way of acknowledging an expansive view of gender identity, offering only the binary question “What is your sex?” with the two options of “male” or “female.” 

The new, optional yes/no question asks: “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex assigned at birth?” then asks respondents to write in their gender identity when it differs from that of their sex assigned at birth. 

Nonbinary people have always existed but struggle to gain recognition in critical state-mandated data collection efforts among many countries today. The UK’s shift from a short, uninformed question about sex in 2011, to several more inclusive questions about sex at birth and gender identity in 2021, allow for critical representation of the trans and nonbinary population in public sector decision making. The UK census, which has been in existence since 1801, is designed to aid civil servants in making decisions on everything from parliamentary policy to the provision of local services, and allocation of public funds. 

This more inclusive approach lies in contrast to the United States, whose most recent 2020 census still demonstrates a built-in assumption that gender is the same as sex assigned at birth, and that sex assigned at birth is strictly binary (wholly excluding intersex persons). In other words, the most recent U.S. census asks only for a binary option of “male” or “female,” related to “sex” and offers no questions about gender identity.  

The UK’s monumental strides toward gender inclusivity were largely influenced by a white paper submitted by Chloe Smith, MP, in 2018. This paper, “Help Shape Our Future,” pleaded the case for why a change in census design was paramount in “reflect[ing] the society in which we live today.” Specifically, the paper describes how the gender identity question would provide reliable information for monitoring anti-discrimination duties described in the Equality Act of 2010, which among other things, prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender reassignment, and gender identity

Analogous anti-discrimination legislation in the U.S. under Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Title VII has influenced employers through federal laws mandating EEOC data collection via the EEO-1 report, a reporting requirement which asks employers to provide data on the diversity of their employees with respect to the availability of qualified workers in the labor market. 

Despite the groundbreaking Bostock v. Clayton County ruling in 2020, which held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender, the EEOC questionnaire, along with the United States census, has yet to begin to formally collect data on gender identity or sexual orientation. Rather than include a gender identity and sexual orientation question, the EEOC tells employers that they can choose to report counts for non-binary people in a comments box prefaced by “additional employee data.” Consequently, U.S. employers and the EEOC both have an incomplete picture of those legally protected categories and their representation in the United States workforce.

Gender identity and sexual orientation as integral aspects of personhood deserve to hold dedicated space in survey design, just as they deserve to hold dedicated space in our national discourse. While improvements have been made in many recent efforts of various arms of the federal government, such as the availability of a gender “x” marker in passports by the State Department, there is still much progress to be made.

Why is this important to employers and to building cultures of inclusion?

Where the EEO-1 report is concerned, a formal analysis including gender identity and sexual orientation can help companies shine a light on where they may be falling short in terms of representation. Where shortfalls occur, there are often behind-the-scenes budget implications, as employers have a clear case to allocate more funds toward recruitment and retention efforts in the form of professional development, job fairs, and employee engagement in order to present its good faith efforts to the EEOC. Similarly, on a larger scale, a U.S. Census that takes gender identity and sexual orientation into account would help lawmakers understand the base that they serve, and why LGBTQ+ populations might deserve closer consideration in decisions around policy and federal funding. 

A closer look at sexual orientation and gender identity is even more crucial following the recent Gallup poll that suggested the overall percentage of U.S. adults that identify as LGBTQ+ has reached 7.1%, and one in five Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ. This increase in out LGBTQ+ young people is similarly reflected in the 2021 UK census data.

It cannot be denied that state-administered surveys help shape the national discourse of identity, personhood, and value. In Erasure and Recognition: The Census, Race and the National Imagination, Naomi Mezey references the three-fifth’s compromise in how:

According to its constitutional mandate, the census does more than facilitate a body count; it also tells us whose body counts, and for how much.”

At the same time, “[it] has been thought of as a mechanism of surveillance and discipline of groups that were incompatible with the national self-image; and it has also been used in an aspirational way by groups seeking recognition of a group identity and inclusion in the national community.”  

In a move that many consider long overdue, a recently-announced Biden administration proposal to change the 2030 Census adds a box for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) peoples, and changes the government’s definition of “white” to no longer include people with MENA origins. In response to this change, Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit, acknowledges the inexorable socio-political impact of such a change:

There is no aspect of anyone’s life that is not touched by census data and your community is rendered invisible in the data when you cannot get an accurate count about it…”

Representation matters and we cannot effectively value what we do not measure. The UK provides an excellent blueprint for how a nation state can evolve survey design to better reflect its people. Put simply, we need to ask the right questions to get the right answers. Without questions on sexual orientation and gender identity on the U.S. census, LGBTQ+ communities risk erasure in the public sphere.